by Hector Symphokoe
When a team from Zambia’s Flying Doctors Service offered a 12-year-old girl in Mahiba refugee camp a slice of bread, the child adamantly refused the offer.
Deborah Ishimwe, a 12-year-old Burundian refugee, accepts bread only on the condition that the Good Samaritans give her more slices to share with her four younger siblings who she supports inside the camp.
Deborah is one example of the reality of child-headed homes, particularly in rural Zambia.
But things get even worse when a 12-year-old girl is forced to look after four of her siblings in a refugee camp where she has no relatives.
This is the exact story of Deborah Ishimoe who instantly becomes a “mother” at a young age after the death of her mother who succumbed to ill health.
Sadly, the little girl has taken on the responsibility of parenting in an environment that is difficult for even a grown adult to survive.
In December 2021, Deborah and her family came to Zambia from Burundi where they fled a civil war and have been residing in the Mahiba refugee camp ever since.
Mahiba is one of the oldest refugee camps in Zambia.
The camp hosts refugees from neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia, among others.
This journalist’s recent visit to the camp opened his mind to the suffering of refugees and how Zambians are benefiting from the historic peace prevailing in the South African country.
In Mahiba, most people living in permanent and temporary homes do not have access to clean drinking water, proper beds, electricity, sanitation, and food.
They mostly live by conducting material farming activities and cutting work.
This is why a number of the refugees we spoke to don’t care about other basic human needs that the camp lacks but need fertilizer more than anything else because feeding their families comes first.
This misfortune is further emphasized when Chief Momina, who has recently been in the camp, asks the refugees to state what they would like the authorities to do for them to improve their welfare.
A few of them indicated that they wanted to obtain piecework without mentioning water, electricity and other luxuries, while a number of them said that they wanted fertilizers so that they could grow crops to enable them to feed their families.
This is the unfortunate environment in which young Deborah, who has been robbed of her childhood and is expected to raise four of her siblings so that they can provide for themselves.
Deborah and her mother entered Zambia via Mpulungu with other refugees fleeing.
“I don’t know more about my father,” Deborah said, “It’s like we left him in Burundi when we were coming to Zambia, all I remember is that we ran away from a place where people were killing each other.”
The smiling girl explained that at some point this year, she was informed that her mother had passed away in the University Teaching Hospital after a long illness.
“I’m not sure what the problem was with my mother, but all I know is that she had a tumor in her ear,” the child said. “My mother’s ear infection started when she was still in Burundi.”
Deborah said the news of her mother’s death immediately made her a “parent” to her four siblings who had been in her care since the time her mother was taken to the capital, Lusaka, to seek medical treatment before her untimely death.
“In the beginning, we were moving from one place to another in search of food and housing until my mother’s friend asked us to start staying with her in one of the hostels in Mohabba refugee camp in Kalumbela district in the Northwest Province,” said the carefree child.
The women, whom they call their aunt, made this decision after noticing that the five children had no one to give them love, food, or shelter.
“We have nothing but something to cook for myself and my brothers when well-wishers give it to us, and sometimes I go around looking for a piece of work for money and food,” said Deborah.
The girl and her siblings survive mostly by eating cassava or cooked cassava leaves.
While her situation may seem hopeless, Deborah, a Year 4 pupil at a nearby school within the refugee camp, explains that her desire is to complete school but that this is hampered by the fact that she has no sponsorship.
Her plight was brought to this reporter’s attention after she refused some slices of bread from a team of officers from the Zambia Flying Doctors Service.
Deborah told the crew that she would only accept the offer until she was given enough food to share with her siblings who were at home inside the refugee camp.
This is despite the fact that the other children got their rations and went running around smiling with joy as they received their slices of bread.
Officers from the Zambia Flying Doctors Service were in Mahiba to provide free medical services.
Residents were examined and treated for various diseases such as malaria and otitis media.
The Flying Doctors were in the Mahiba refugee camp at the request of Chief Momina of the Calumbela District who consider these shelters his theme.
In an effort to understand Deborah’s condition, this reporter visits an inn she calls home where he meets a woman who takes the initiative to care for orphans even though she struggles to make ends meet.
Jocelyn Siponio explains that Deborah’s mother had a tumor and died at UTH.
“As far as I’ve decided to start taking care of these kids, I’m limited because I’m no longer a freelancer,” Sibonio said.
This is because she has a chest problem and sometimes coughs up blood.
“I depend on Deborah to help me with the housework and take care of the kids.”
She explains that Deborah’s mother fled Burundi together in the aftermath of a civil war.
“We used a boat to get into Zambia via Mpulungu, it was a scary journey but we had to get through it and I don’t like to talk about that experience,” she said.
Chief Momina has taken an equal interest in the welfare of this family and wants well-wishers to come aboard and help the helpless children.
“This is a child who cannot take care of her siblings effectively,” said Chief Momina.
The traditional leader believes that an institution such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should do more to help refugees.
He fears a humanitarian crisis if the situation is left unaddressed.
The traditional chief personally visited the four children and encouraged them to fight and hope for the best.
“I will soon meet officials from UNHCR and I hope to bring this issue of children before them, no one deserves to suffer the suffering of these children,” said President Momina.
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